Whether you want to save your phone's memory (and battery) or need your on-the-go sound to be as good as it can possibly be, look no further than our pick of the best portable MP3 players on the planet.
Despite the demise of the iPod (Apple waved goodbye to the last remaining model in May 2022), the traditional standalone portable music player has by no means been consigned to the scrap heap.
While smartphones now satisfy most users' demand for on-the-go musical delivery, there are still dozens of dedicated players that can go even further in delivering high-quality and high-resolution audio from your pocket. The expert review team at What Hi-Fi? has tried and tested every one of these music players, so you can rest assured you'll find the ideal one for the right price.
We've tested many players from Cowon, FiiO, Sony and more over the years, although the more premium Astell & Kerns are having a stellar year (or two) and continue to dominate our best lists – for the moment. Below, we've rounded up the current best portable hi-res music players across a range of prices to ensure you know exactly what to look for and where to find it.
The quick list
Best portable music player overall
All you could ever expect or want from a portable music player at this level, the SR35 is an absolute stonker.
Best budget portable music player
It’s not perfect, but this affordable player delivers a mature, even-handed performance at an attractive price.
Best portable music player overall
The SR35 stretches the definition of ‘entry level’, sitting a rung or two up the ladder from the affordable Sony NW-A306 (below) and even pricier than the previous 'entry level' (and Award-winning) SR25 MKII it replaces. But there's no arguing with the astonishing level of performance you get from it.
The excellent SR35 boasts many of the features that made its five-star, What Hi-Fi? Award-winning predecessor so successful – including three headphone outputs (3.5mm, 4.4mm and 2.5mm), native playback of MQA, DSD256 and PCM up to 32-bit/384kHz files, 64GB of built-in storage (expandable by up to 1TB via a microSD card), and the neat ability to use the player as a performance-enhancing DAC between your wired headphones and, say, laptop.
There's not a chance of the SR35 missing a beat with the music you send its way. The five-star player has the punch and rhythmic drive to keep you tapping along to upbeat tracks, and the insight to draw you into the details of those calmer ones. The presentation is hugely likeable, with a tonal balance slightly on the rich side, and a combination of power and finesse that feels very mature for a source at this level that most headphones will get along just fine with. Happy days all around.
Read the full review: Astell & Kern A&norma SR35
Best budget portable music player
As a portable music player, the NW-A306 fits the brief perfectly. It's compact and fits in palms and pockets alike comfortably, and we love the scalloped textured back that gives us a good grip without sacrificing style.
The NW-A306's connections are minimal, but that's no bad thing: the USB-C cable lets you charge, transfer files and use the Walkman as a DAC, while the 3.5mm headphone jack can be used with a variety of good-to-great headphones. The available onboard storage is rather small in comparison to other players, but it is possible to expand the storage thanks to the microSD slot.
Internally, NW-A306 is packed to the gills with features: the hi-res file support is extensive and excellent at this affordable price, the full Android OS means it effectively operates similarly to a smartphone (for better or worse) and lets you download your favourite music streaming app, and it even supports LDAC and aptX codecs over Bluetooth.
The Sony player is adept enough to turn its hand to various genres and can even discern the differences in file qualities, while all sounding comfortable to listen to for long periods. It's a pleasingly detailed and clean performance. In fact, there’s a familial throughline from the high-end NW-WM1ZM2 player to the A306 in terms of how mature and evenly balanced it sounds. It can also play at loud volumes without ever sounding harsh or confused. We'd like more dynamic punch and drive to songs that need it though; the Sony can sound a touch reserved when a song demands outright fun or aggression.
However, this is a capable hi-res player worthy of your consideration if your budget doesn’t stretch to the more premium Astell & Kern SR35 player.
Read the full review: Sony NW-A306
Best premium portable music player
How about a customisable PMP with interchangeable DAC modules? That's the idea here – and we liked it so much, we gave it What Hi-Fi? 2021 and 2022 Awards. The SE180 is the third model in Astell & Kern’s near-flagship A&futura range, following the inaugural SE100 and SE200, both of which gained Awards from this very publication in 2019 and 2020 respectively.
To personally tailor your sound, the SE180 goes one step further than the slightly older SE200 (which has two user-selectable DAC configurations built into the player) in that it features an interchangeable DAC module design. The concept: Astell & Kern releases a series of DAC modules, all with different sonic characters, so that owners can purchase them and swap them in over the standard supplied module, if they so wish.
Of course, these can be considered optional extras; experimental paths that can be taken or completely ignored. After all, the SE180 is an all-in-one player in itself, with the default module containing the ESS ES9038PRO DAC. It supports 32-bit/384kHz PCM, native DSD256 and MQA audio and has 2.5mm, 3.5mm and 4.4mm outputs to cater for a wide range of headphones.
With built-in wi-fi as well as direct access to streaming service apps in its menu, the SE180 doesn’t make hard work of your music however you would like to play it. Whether you consider the modular design valuable or not, even straight from the box, the SE180 is one of the best performance-per-pound offerings in the company’s line-up.
Read the full review: Astell & Kern A&futura SE180
How to choose the best portable music player for you
Whatever your budget, you will be surprised at what you can get for your money these days. Every player here supports MP3 and AAC files of course, but we can all do better than that in 2023. All of the models above also support high-resolution audio files, from 24-bit FLAC and PCM files and even DSD.
Some also add native MQA playback to that compatibility list, so you can listen to hi-res Tidal Masters through compatible players and playback downloaded MQA music in the best sound quality possible.
Have an extensive digital music collection? Many of these MP3 players have microSD memory slots, so your assembled throng of tracks and artists need never stop growing. Expandable memory also means you can keep all of your music at the highest quality possible, without worrying about those large file sizes taking up all of your player's storage space.
There are even MP3 players here that can double up as a DAC to enhance the sound between your smartphone/laptop and headphones/speakers. Some have built-in access to streaming services, too, while others have even more functionality that mirrors a smartphone's (for better or worse).
But all of the products in this list have one thing in common: excellent sound quality. And if you're here, that is probably the aspect that's most important to you in a portable MP3 player.
How we test portable music players
We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London, Reading and Bath, where our team of experienced, in-house reviewers tests the majority of hi-fi and AV kit that passes through our door, including the higher-end portable music players that might well be used in a portable hi-fi or desktop scenario.
These music players are placed in our pockets during the review period too, of course, so we can gauge how portable and easy to use on the fly they really are.
Most important in our reviewing process is that each product is compared with the best in its price and class. What Hi-Fi? is all about comparative testing, so we keep our Award winners nearby to enable comparisons between new products and ones we know perform highly in the category.
We are always impartial and do our utmost to make sure we are hearing every product at its very best, so we try plenty of different types of music (and music files) and give each plenty of listening time (and time to run in). We use a range of headphones at levels likely to suit a certain player, too.
It's not just about sound quality, of course. If a product has noteworthy features – such as battery life, built-in streaming services and DAC-performing abilities, in the case of portable music players – we always ensure part of our testing involves testing the claims made by its makers.
All review verdicts are agreed upon by the entire team, rather than an individual reviewer, to eliminate any personal preference and to make sure we are being as thorough as possible. There is no input from PR companies or our sales team when it comes to the verdict. At What Hi-Fi?, we are proud to deliver honest, unbiased reviews – something we have been doing consistently for more than 45 years.
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